Over the past few years, a spate of terrific science fiction novels about videogames have asked what will happen to gaming — and gamers — in the future. Will political elections be decided by videogame? Will resistance movements be organized by guilds? And who will control the game spaces that already control so much of our imaginations? Here are ten novels (OK, one is a novella) that grapple with these questions.
Artwork for Ready Player One by Gordon Jones.
For this list, I wanted to focus on novels that are explicitly about videogames, gamers, and game developers. Though there are many futuristic novels featuring virtual worlds or cyberspace-like places that are clearly modeled on videogames, those books aren't about videogames per se.
1. Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks (1988)
The oldest book on our list, Player of Games was the second novel Banks published in his popular Culture series, set in a very distant, post-human future where descendants of Earth have spread across the galaxy and joined forces with aliens and AIs. The main character Gurgeh is a notoriously brilliant board game player who gets recruited by the Culture's version of MI6, called Special Circumstances, to play an immersive virtual reality game on another planet. That game turns out to be woven into the fabric of the planet's political culture, and Gurgeh's job isn't just to win - it's to overthrow the planet's government. Like many early videogame stories, this novel is less about videogames per se than it is about how such games are a metaphor for other aspects of our lives. In other words, The Player of Games isn't about gaming as gaming — it's about gaming as life.
2. The Restoration Game, by Ken MacLeod (2010)
It's interesting to contrast MacLeod's latest novel with The Player of Games because The Restoration Game also deals with how videogames influence political power. But it also reflects how much our understanding of videogames has changed. MacLeod doesn't need to take his characters to another planet; instead, he takes us into the cubicles of a videogame company developing a nationalistic MMO that the CIA hopes will foment a revolution in a fictional Eastern European country. We move between the politics of videogame development and the politics of engineered revolution, only to discover that one of the greatest secrets of the former Soviet Union is a kind of cosmic easter egg. (Our review is here.)
3. Halting State, by Charles Stross (2008)
In the first of his two linked detective novels that focus on futuristic cybercrimes, Stross plunges us into a world of virtual theft and network infection. As investigators try to track the theft of several thousand euros worth of game items in an MMO, we slowly learn that more than gamer gold is at stake. Chinese hackers have infiltrated the backbone of the European internet, opening a gaping security hole that could bring down governments as well as gamer goblins.
4. For The Win, by Cory Doctorow (2010)
Written for a young adult audience and set mostly in Asia, For The Win is about young people who make their living playing videogames, and who use their virtual guilds to organize a real-world labor movement. It combines many of the preoccupations of MacLeod and Stross' work, but focuses entirely on how MMOs can build up effective resistance movements. Here we see the triumph of gamers over game designers, and the oppressed lower classes being empowered, rather than being used by security forces to bring down enemy governments. Doctorow's novel is one of the most Utopian in the genre.
5. Reamde, by Neal Stephenson (2011)
Stephenson's new novel deals with Chinese goldfarmers, much like Doctorow's For the Win. But these goldfarmers aren't masters of their own destiny; instead they're swept up into a spy plot that entangles everyone from MMO developers to anti-American terrorists. Like Doctorow, Stephenson makes the point that MMOs bring people together in unexpected ways. But instead of helping people to discover their shared political and economic interests, the MMO in Reamde is simply a fascinating plot device that speeds the techno-thriller's plot along. (Our review is here.)
6. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011)
Cline believes, as Doctorow does, that MMOs can help the oppressed find each other and fight back against the despotic techno-entertainment complex. The novel focuses on group of gamers trying to find easter eggs that will unlock the keys to an eccentric videogame tycoon's vast fortune. The tycoon has left his money to any gamer wily enough to find the "three keys." If our heroes, champions of the MMO's freewheeling, anonymous system, win the keys, the MMO stays free and anonymous. If the corporate gamers working for an evil company claim the keys, the MMO will become a pay-to-play, commercialized shadow of its former self. Here, the fight to save the MMO is clearly tinged with politics — but the book is also about the power of friendships forged in gameworlds, as well as the sheer exhilaration of gaming. (Our review is here.)
7. Omnitopia Dawn, by Diane Duane (2010)
The first in a new series by Duane, best known for her fantasy novels, Omnitopia Dawn is the story of an anarchic, fantasy-oriented MMO, Omnitopia, on the eve of a giant upgrade. As the game's rules shift beneath characters' feet, a war brews between the game's creators, who are champions of open source, and a rival who runs a company that only cares about commercializing the virtual world. A similar clash brews in Ready Player One. Indeed, the war between good developers who fight for the users, vs. evil corporate overlords who want to homogenize the system, is an ancient trope in this genre. It goes all the way back to the original Tron, and probably before.
8. The Gravity Pilot, by M. M. Buckner (2011)
While most novels about videogames in the future take as a given that the games can serve either the powers of good or evil, this book by M. M. Buckner is a throwback to an older mode of videogame storytelling. Here, there is a stark line drawn between the real world, where our hero Orr is a superstar skydiver, and the evil of the cyberworld, which converts our other hero Vera into a cyberaddicted techno-slave. It's never really clear why the ultra-dangerous practice of skydiving is somehow better than cyberaddiction — you're just supposed to understand that cyber is automatically more awful than anything else.
9. "Ghost in the Machine," by Mercedes Lackey (2010)
A novella from the book Trio of Sorcery, "Ghost in the Machine" is a classic tech-gnosis tale of a sorceress whose powers reach into the cyberworld of an MMO. She's who you call when the powers of darkness start to distribute cheat codes.
10. Extras, by Scott Westerfeld (2007)
In this novel from the Uglies series, humanity has just undergone a social and economic transformation. People who were once dulled into passivity by medical treatments to make them passive and pretty have been freed, and now everyone — including governments — are trying to figure out what to do with themselves. City-states are forming their own weird new cultures, and in Yokohama, Japan, this involves sucking every citizen into a reputation economy where people earn "face points" when their community likes something they do. Our protagonist is a journalist who tries to score points for getting the best scoops, and in the process uncovers a new underground movement.